Gather ‘round, folks, because the Coen Brothers have another tale to tell—six tales, in fact. With their anthology project The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the pair revisit some well-tread ground—death, greed, and comedy in the Old West—through a series of storybook vignettes that are just as violent (and twice as witty) as any Grimm fairytale. None of the film’s individual chapters achieve anything the directors haven’t already given us in spades, but the pieces come together to form an intriguing, if somewhat hollow, collection, resembling more of a patchwork quilt from a forgotten civilization than a feature-length Hollywood film.
The six star-studded shorts vary in style and tone but are bound by the unmistakable Coen character. The namesake short “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” opens the film, featuring a superb Tim Blake Nelson as the titular singing, sharp-shooting cowboy who looks like he just popped out of a vintage children’s cartoon. He whistles, smiles, and murders with abandon, often speaking directly to the camera to offer the audience a bit of reassurance in his springy drawl. The character is so delightful to watch, you can’t help but feel let down when the story flips to “Near Algodones,” where a bank robber played by James Franco, well, robs a bank. As much fun as it is to watch Franco teeter around on his horse with a noose around his neck, the belly laughs of “Near Algodones” are all thanks to Stephen Root’s crazy-eyed banker.
The film loses some momentum in “Meal Ticket,” a grotesquely dark gothic tale about two traveling performers, played by Liam Neeson and Harry Melling. The gut-punch punchline revolves around Melling’s quadriplegic character and a chicken that can supposedly do math, so take that as you will. At least Liam Neeson got to be united with that horse! From there, we move to “All Gold Canyon,” a visually beautiful if morally unambiguous tale about man’s greed and nature’s way of sorting us all out. It’s a tidy little story with a full-circle conclusion, and checks off the mandatory “crazy old gold prospector” box required of any good film about the Old West.
The final two chapters of Buster Scruggs are some of its longest and most cinematically interesting, with ambitious camerawork and sharp writing buoyed by memorable performances. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” follows Alice Longabaugh (played by Zoe Kazan) as she travels West with a group in covered wagons, “Oregon Trail” style. Featuring cholera, buried money, fights with the Natives, a marriage proposal, and a cute but annoying dog, this short is the closest we come to a traditional Hollywood Western through the whole of Buster Scruggs. Hell, I would go so far as to say emotionally satisfying—there’s backstory! And a woman! But in the end, it’s another dose of life’s cruel irony, a reminder from the Coens that death is all we get, so we may as well laugh about it.
The film’s final chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is an eerie one-act play that cleverly takes away the wide-open space that defines Westerns and forces all the drama into a single darkened room. A cast of characters—named in the credits simply as a Lady (Tyne Daly), Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and Trapper (Chelcie Ross)—butt heads about their different ways of life while stuffed like sardines into a fast-moving stagecoach. Although it isn’t any bit of revolutionary screenwriting, to spoil the twist would be be to spoil the fun, like diving into dessert before dinner.
Despite the interesting way that these stories weave together, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs often feels hollowed out, scrubbed of any sentiment beyond “life’s a bitch and then you die, so enjoy this laugh while you can.” To make sense of that feeling is complicated business. Part of me understands that, in asking for full emotional resonance, I might be placing the wrong demands on short stories, Westerns, and black comedy. Part of me also knows that American cinema doesn’t often present us with non-standard narrative film, so when it arrives, we don’t know what to do with it. But I don’t think it’s beyond reason to ask for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, through all its violence and darkness and grim laughs, to simply say more. Short or long, full of men with guns or women on a Greek island, films should do emotional work and speak to the time they’re in, not just shake their heads knowingly at you.
Then again, these are grim times we’re living in, and while I’m put off by the film’s intense violence, dark jokes, and lack of representation for period accuracy (I mean, it’s a Western), others might find it’s the kind of escapist catharsis they’re looking for. In the end, the gun-slinging, song-singing, pan-shooting weirdness of it all is just too fun to write off completely.